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Same as it Ever Was

Every so often, something truly magical appears and changes the universe forever. Recent marvels like wireless and digital content are just two examples that come to mind. Each changed our expectations of what's possible.

Every so often, something truly magical appears and changes the universe forever. Recent marvels like wireless and digital content are just two examples that come to mind. Each changed our expectations of what’s possible.

I think the personal computer is a marvel as well. However, the PC’s pixie dust is starting to lose its luster. Sure, the personal computer is indispensable, but it’s getting a little… well… old.

For most users, the difference between one gigahertz and two is largely irrelevant, and it seems as if the only reason to buy a new computer is to keep up with the innovations being made in separate, albeit related technologies, such as graphics acceleration, wireless networking, and high-density, high-performance storage.

For example, if you want to play Doom 3, you’ll need the requisite gear to push all of those pixels. Otherwise, last year’s beige box is just as good as this year’s beige box. (I think Bill Gates famously said, “You can have any color you want, so long as it’s beige.”) Even if you own a Mac — which is decidedly not beige, thanks to Apple’s Jonathan Ive — its purpose, like its Wintel cousins, remains the same as it ever was.

In fact, over the last few years, even as clock speeds and memory capacities have exploded, the application of the personal computer has ironically become less varied. More and more, the PC is simply a window into that other modern marvel, the Internet (and its more corporate sibling, the intranet).

Of course, the flip side of the “commoditization” of the personal computer is that almost anyone can afford one, and migrating applications to the Internet allows global, uniform access to a wide variety of services and features. I can’t afford to run 100,000 computers, but Google can. (Google runs Linux extensively, otherwise it might not be able to run 100,000 computers either.)

So, if the PC is an appliance and the Internet is a utility — and I think those comparisons are apt — what’s next?

To be honest, I’m not completely sure (my crystal ball got fritzed during a recent electrical storm). However, what seems certain is that commoditization — cheap hardware, open source software, widespread connectivity — is changing the economics of both personal and enterprise computing and is upsetting the status quo. New marvels, whether they’re inspired or simply reactionary, will follow close behind.

My wish list? It would be great to have ubiquitous Internet access. Always-on access would be even better if my files lived everywhere and nowhere, so I was never without my data. That implies that application software lives everywhere and nowhere as well, and that a wide variety of devices are standardized to run that code. (I imagine you can think of other ideas, and I welcome your suggestions.) And I don’t think all of it needs to be complicated: the heavy lifting can be done at home.

I suppose some of this sounds like the original vision for Java or the propaganda for .NET. Other parts seem downright Apple-like: do one thing and do it well, if I may paraphrase.

Whatever the case, I hope that some of the creativity that’s allowed open source to upend proprietary code moves from the back-end to the forefront.

Open source has reinvented the software business. It’s time to set our sights on reinventing the entire computing experience.

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Martin Streicher is the Editor-in-Chief of Linux Magazine. You can reach him at mstreicher@linux-mag.com.

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